We may not socialize in order to live any more than we live in order to socialize. Rushkoff
Nowadays, different public institutions and modern technologies are designed not to expand human potential and participation but alleviate and oppress us.
On the one hand, it happens because individuals are considered such a problem. On the other hand, technocrats suppose technologies are a solution to most problems. These perpetual beliefs in magic technologies undermine respect for others and yourself.
The roots are in the myth based on Darvian theory where evolution is a permanent competition. The fact that nature is a collaborative environment has been ignored for a long time. For example, a forest is a connection between the tallest trees (canopies) and their smaller peers and bushes including even fungi. Each human is also a part of the enduring and uncertain organism. For a long time, mankind had been trained to fear and reject this uncertainty instead of meeting it and actively and openly intervening the reality. Because uncertainty is a life. Why are we afraid of it?
The book “Team Human” by Douglas Rushkoff gives us a robust understanding of interconnectedness and its modern impediments.
Figure or ground
The author offers a worthy “actor-object” model for explaining relationships between people, on the one hand, and different technologies/beliefs, on the other. He calls them “figure” and “ground” respectively. The figure is a goal, a subject. The ground is a tool, an object we use for achieving some societal aim.
The easiest example is when a car from a tool for commuting and travel (ground) grew into a goal (figure). Now, a car should be that color or shape, with this preferable interior, reflect social status and many more.
More abstractly, on some level, human beings can instead of inventing something new spend their energy and resources just protecting ideas or institutions. “Inventing something new” is a figure, and “protecting an idea or institution” is a ground in the picture. Where is the problem?
Let us look at another example of money that was a mean (“ground”) of goods exchanged in a marketplace (“figure”). However, in the present, money is transformed into a goal and becomes a figure. The marketplace transformed to a tool for selling shares and making more money, and products and ideas exchange was revoked. It is a problem.
Externalization and instrumentalization
Education, which was a figure, turned into a ground. To be precise, education's aim was to literate population, broaden their horizons, and improve their abilities to make informed decisions in real life. And now, it has mutated into a narrow tool for preparing students for jobs in private or state enterprises. Put differently, education as a social activity was instrumentalized as a cheap way for training staff for corporations. The unprofitable public domain was converted to private profit. What about expenses for education?
Expenditures for “education” were externalized to society. It means companies moved expenses for preparing well-baked employees to citizens. It is invisible and not easy to touch but exists. Instrumentalized education became paid for by citizens.
The first well-known example of externalization is The Manure Crisis in 1894 (London). Where horses were substituted with cars as a solution for the crisis. But ecological problems and city space organization were fully loaded on the shoulders of public institutions but not profit makers.
Technocapitalists behave very similarly by externalizing their expenses and bringing about outsourced slavery. Rare earth metals, which are essential for many components in computers of all ranges, need an enormous amount of energy. Who is paying for the energy?
Mostly each tech has at least two sides. To discuss the dark side, books were a weapon of the literate wealthy to impose wars and slavery, the radio mobilized mass violence and tyrannies, money increased the monopoly of banks on independent economic agency, and eventually, social media put us into algorithmically defined silos.
We deploy the thought on another fundamental application. Spoken language connects the public. At the same time, it also has an adverse effect. It gives just a part of the truth. The written word collects knowledge, and history and passes them across time and space. It also created control over labor (slaves) and resources (land/grain). In addition, fixed on the “paper” words ignite wars.
What is more, the Gutenberg printing press was bandaged by rulers and their laws, as well as radio was monopolized by the government and business giants bandaged the spectrum.
Similar things happened with TV. It, instead of being a connector and an educator, was transformed to a tool for promoting consumerism and encouraging conformism among viewers.
The original idea around the net is to give personal autonomy to individuals, and foster connection among persons in a new way by sharing common assets, messaging and playing games instead of work. The Net was considered such an extension of humanity’s nervous system, or more, the planet’s spirit or brain.
Social media, it seemed, should continue the Net concept. Users would make content, share unconventional ideas and discuss them.
Now the medium is mostly about shopping catalogs or one-to-one marketing. The users eventually turned into a target of marketing and ad-based content. “People to people” logic transformed into “people to market” logic. Where is the figure here? Logic.
Plants bind energy, animals - space, and human - time. It became possible because of the language human beings invented. And this invention saves our experience, creates a sense of connection, increases rapport and, as a result, reinforces one another. It is the light side of tech. The dark side I have already discussed. Language also gives us algorithms. And algorithms are a figure now. What do algorithms bind? They bind us. Rushkoff said that algorithms can be our successors.
Bluntly speaking, consumers become a product. The spirit of connection changed into competition for likes, followers and influencer status. Finally, the competitive landscape created competitive content. If an idea is compelling it has serious chances to be copied and proliferated among myriads. The contest is on. Separation?
The peak of the race, or better say “the battle”, Rushkoff called “memes warfare”. Memes provoke a “fight-or-flight” response that mostly looks like a “reptile reaction” without processing it on a deep level (by-passing the neocortex of our brains) and block our prosocial behavior.
So, the author considers memes as viruses attacking our culture, atomizing us. Also, the reaction in the social media environment reduces our cognitive ability to distinguish what is real and what is not, what is actual or imaginable and what is a threat or just a conspiracy. Who is the ground here?
Why did we devote a separate room for TV and cut forests for electric cables? Because these inventions influence us. Should engineering be an extension of our will and give us more choices? Obviously, that should be the point. Automation, AI and machine learning should create prosperity. But in real life, it causes austerity and anxiety among individuals who fear losing their jobs. Why? Is commerce so inhuman?
Commerce is not a problem. However, capitalism converts money as the goal. The market should foster corporations with funds. Digital capitalism exacerbates the problem even faster. It is not only about a collection of money for making more money, it is also about global externalization.
Quick business growth is possible when there are terrains for this growth. The digital economy often forgets that exponential growth does not occur in the natural world, And what if the territories for expansion have ended?
That is, although big box retailers extract coins from local communities, the digital business can do it for whole regions or industries. What is more, online taxi service platforms move the cost of repairing cars, maintaining roads and tackling traffic jams on their employees? If the first corporations should close their supermarkets and move their business to a more profitable place, digital enterprises do not need to do even so. It is enough to terminate contracts and cut remote stuff with their instruments: laptops, vehicles or whatever.
Another example, in a world driven by computers, speed and efficiency are the primary values. So, we mostly do not buy new things including material but subscribe to them. It also forces us to buy new tools for software upgrades. And refusing the upgrade may provoke a removal of “old” social norms or even “weak” human beings from the agenda. Humans became an impediment in an infinite scalability logic. And what can be done with non-profitable features? Yep, they can be terminated. Eliminated with humans. Why? No upgrade, no profit.
In addition, evolution (“upgrades”) is a spontaneous uneven mutation in some environment. The process can be profitable and unprofitable. High tech changed into an environment for many and separated us from others and nature. We still function in such an environment.
Like in the social media on the internet of things (IoT) users are the things (ground) - information and content. Information can be quantified, separated or disconnected. Then “quantified human” can be converted to bits. It means, uploaded to the cloud, or installed somewhere. Or deleted?
Line versus cycle
Rushkoff several times discusses the invention of writing. Writing sets up historical time, in other words, the past and the future. It destroyed spirituality with circular thinking. Writing also established monotheism with its linear story. This linearity imposes “before” and “after” thinking. This thinking developed beliefs and behavior where externalities can be ignored until the end. For example, violence for the present is acceptable because of a higher reason and future payoff.
When civilization approved a job as a main mode for the economical activities of many, it converted persons into property. Humans became device, precisely, ground. Jobs become the matter - figure. In the economy, time became the main value. Time is money. And we know, capitalism is about money for money. Linear.
“Job” is not only one implementation of the linearity concept. The persuasive design does it more subtly and forces individuals to hang infinitely and aimlessly on social media. UX (“user experience”) specialists create interfaces nudging users to be always online by checking our social circles, email boxes and comment threads. We become addicted to the medium by trying to achieve the non-existent end. This state of “never reaching the final” makes us less capable of distinguishing real from fake, even human and nonhuman. Disconnection.
On the other hand, there are many circular approaches in history. Moors bazaars presented and practised local currency, for accelerating goods turnover there. The currency was used for one bazaar session. They were designed to lose their value over time. It was grain. One more example is about shared ownership of pastures in Medieval England. Where the use of land for cattle was shaped by all local participants who mutually approved the rules.
Ok, ok…. Rushkoff means we should come back to the past, right? - ask an attentive reader. No.
What solution does the author offer us? It is a renaissance. Not destroying all we have today but infusing our basic, organic, connected, emotional, social, and spiritual activities in a present flow.
Renaissance is about retrieving and rebirth old ideas to a new context and is about ideas boosting our deepest human values.
Present dominant morale is individualism, baked on the notion of competition and engineering solutions. Individual practice of autonomy like an independent choice or free will opens its potential in the balance with interdependency with others - with a large social context or projects. So…
If The Medieval Renaissance evoked individualism from tribal life, the current renaissance should convert individualism to something else… maybe collectivism. But collectivism is not chosen by “happenstance” but by active choice. Rushkoff believes that New collectivism should be a figure and a ground at the same time.
The author offers us further premises for this renaissance: to develop distributism (co-ops), user-owned social media (federated and shared resources) and subsidiarity. The approaches show a manner for shifting from a debit-credit (“zero-sum”, “input-output”) economy to a circular.
Distributed energy production, development of local cooperatives, fairer wealth management, and permaculture are the premises for connecting us to place and creating rapport or at least will and readiness to listen to our adversaries.
Love, justice, distributed prosperity, shared ownership and responsibility, holism, connectedness, localism, peer-to-peer economics, women’s rights, environmentalism, mutual aid, power of grassroots, bottom-up politics, and consensus-driven approach give humans meaning and direction.
As a result, a value-driven society looks like a self-governed organization with a set of common ideals. The organization can represent an organic association of citizens around resources, commons and marketplaces.
What to do
You may be thinking: “Ok, a renaissance is a good idea. All the beautiful words above are more than attractive. But what can I do? What is my next step?”
Rushkoff gives a blunt answer: “Find others”.
Yep, the future is not a finished song but a verb opening for new inventions. If the inventions service the community, it gives us a chance to experience autonomy and belonging simultaneously. Happiness?
Freakiness can be a tool for bypassing everything that keeps us apart. Among them are technologies, mindsets, institutions, and conventions that disconnect us. Our anomaly helps us restore our deep social connections and fulfill as a human.
For building trust, we can rely on the organic world. The three-dimensional space launches our prosocial behavior towards others and gives us a tool for tackling suspicious, alienated attitudes.
Everything is interconnected. If one is oppressed in human society, others are too.
To open our full potential, even if we are not ideal but are not alone, we just need to find others.